You become the breath of god… you flit and fly around in a glowing trail. Dirt, water, lava, rocks, and vegetation are manipulated by the movements of your fingers. Your “people”… small… tiny actually… villagers run to and fro expecting you to protect them… expecting your grace… suffering or being fruitful based on your whims. Rivers are managed and moved… torrents are kept free from the shores of your villagers’ abodes. Trees and plants sprout where you remove water… desert is given a thirsty drink when you add water… palms spring forth and calm the windy dunes. “You control the destiny of a tribe against the backdrop of a world in constant evolution, a universe where mighty Nature reclaims what is hers and your mastery of the elements is your people’s only chance of survival…” is how Ubisoft describes the game From Dust.
From Dust is “a modern god game where nature is the star.” “Bob the Builder is given an ant farm” is a better description. Having god-like powers would stop the damn lava from catching the palms on fire… villagers wouldn’t be screaming their tiny heads off as their homes and tribal grounds burn to a crisp. If the player is actually a god… those damn water spouts would be calmed… instead they continue jettisoning streams into the air and flooding desert… where once was nothing is a lake of grand proportions… villagers are cut off from one another… individuals stand on shores and look skyward for your benevolence.
Ubisoft goes on to state that you “master the natural forces at play on a mysterious archipelago and help a primitive tribe recover the lost powers of their ancestors.” I have mastered nothing, and I don’t feel the need to help the primitives… except when I realize that the only way you can continue to play in the sandbox is to ensure these tiny little primitive motherfuckers don’t die… if they die, game over… reboot… restart.
Contradictory in style, From Dust supposedly needs you to “protect your tribe against Nature’s most devastating attacks. You’ll be faced with tsunamis, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, torrential rains, and more.” Then you are falsely told that you will “control the forces of nature and sculpt the world in your image.” Tossed back and forth… I wonder if I am to protect my tribe from Nature or do I actually control the forces of nature. Guess that is the difference between a capital N and a little n.
The game starts simple… a bunch of your primitive villagers… 7 to be exact… are standing on a sandy island and a glowing stone head… an entrance and cave to another island… awaits a few hundred meters away… beckoning with a light. Your tiny protectees start running… after a magical ritual in which you… their breath of god… is summoned. You follow along. These tiny runners… in the land of water, fire, and shifting sands running seems to be the only mode… are stopped by a 50 meter space of water. They cannot get from point A to point B. From Dust reveals itself immediately… this is a puzzle game. A quick tutorial cut away shows that you can grab a giant ball of sand in one location and then move to another where you deposit it… in a Bob the Builder way… without hammer or shovel… all with the movements of your fingers… you are an earth mover. You deposit the earth on the water… it piles quickly, suspiciously and in a serious way of foreshadowing… half of it washes away. But you have placed enough to stem the tide… the current stops… rerouted to another place… your tiny track team of villagers run across your sand bridge and enter the glowing cave. Success… you are on your way to minor deity.
What follows are a host of maps with different puzzles. Raging waterfalls… full of silt… cause giant raging rivers on a small island. You make sand mounds to guide the river away from villagers… they are fruitful… they multiply. Quickly weird worm-like creatures emerge among the palms… you may have some god-like powers… you do not determine the birth of these animals… they come along with the scenery. Soon you have a large… and soggy… island full of palms, green swamps, and a couple of villages. You determine how long you wish to control the flooding… you can shape the river, build the earth… but soon the power of water is too much… dikes break… damn villagers scream for assistance. You… a god… tire of their pleading. You tire of seeing the torrent changing course. You build a route to the exit cave… 7 villagers sprint from the lush beauty of what one imagines is the South Pacific. These 7 disappear inside the cave… from earth they are made to return to earth.
One “map,” or world, after another you are forced to build, destroy, reroute, and attempt to control “nature” to ensure these fleet-footed tribe members are able to blow their horns, beat their drums, and build stilted huts. New world is replaced by new world with increasingly difficult puzzles… trees that explode into flame for no reason… water plants that explode when flame draws near… tidal waves crash against the shores… you are forced to follow the game… you must complete the challenges and puzzles if you wish to continue playing.
Sandbox games are also called “open world“… these games allow you to roam freely and interact with the environment and characters. From Dust is not a sandbox game, yet it is full of sand… damn sand that washes quickly away as the water rises and your villagers cry like babes… these villagers are on what seems like an endless quest for the knowledge of their ancestors.
From Dust has taught me something about myself… From Dust has taught me that I don’t care for “my” villagers… they are extras in my game of “how much destruction can I create without the level ending in defeat.” I am sure some players actually care about the villagers… feeling the responsibility of keeping their little yaps shut with smiles. I feel no need to protect them… I protect them just enough to keep the level going. I am mesmerized by my less than god-like ability to manipulate some of nature. I don’t really care about the puzzles… but I do like seeing the digital world of From Dust moved and reformed by the clicks of my fingers. It is visual candy.
One game review provides the following pros: “refreshing and unique strategy experience” (really it is more puzzle than strategy), “stunning elemental and environmental effects” (tru dat… it is visually appealing). Cons include: “villager AI not the brightest at times” (no shit… they are complete idiots… thankfully they can swim cause I attempt to drown the fuckers a lot just to see them squirm). The review comes with following themes: “Be Kind To Your People;” “With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility;” “It’s Like Your Own Lost. Not Really;” and “There’s Something Special About Playing God.”
With all these pros, cons, and themes I think that gaming is a long way from the day of Atari and Donkey Kong… it is a long way from 1983 when my dad and I would play football on a Magnavox gaming system… blocks of red and blue stumbling across our television screen… run or pass were your only choices. Pong may have been the first step in making us fat… From Dust has made us ponder what gaming is still missing. The game would be far better if there was less urgency, and more power in the hand of the player. If I am going to be god… allow me to control all the elements… make my villagers more independent. Have the little fuckers destroying the environment through chemicals and the burning of fossil fuels. Let two villages go to war with one another… force me to sit there and make decisions on how to assist or destroy warring tribes. Let me pass judgement… let me wipe the slate clean and begin anew. Allow me, the god, to work nature in the image I truly want… if that happens then there will be no little villagers… with their ignorance (result of poor AI programming?)… with their sheep-like bleating. I would make the world green, brown, red… I would color the world like a rainbow… fresh dew sprinkled across the land with no man-like creature treading heavily.
It is fun… but gaming has a way to go before I feel like a god. From Dust is more like a nursemaid experience.